Reconsidering My Grandfather: A Tale of Fathers and Sons

In many ways, my father’s father (my Zeide) evoked pathos. He was pathetic, for example, in his impotent rages – against who knows what? – at moments between which he went dutifully about his work, scraping out a living.

Pathetic has negative connotations, but perhaps only from a narrow point of view.

One of the most moving scenes in my childhood occurred when I was perhaps 10 years old, visiting my grandparents – where “family” was in Philadelphia. My brother and I had our two narrow beds strung along the hallway that was most of the second level of the place, with the Mom and Pop shop down below, where my grandparents sold newspapers, sundries, candy, and the occasional ice-cream soda to the residents of their somewhat shabby neighborhood.

I thought the place very romantic, with the trolley’s going up and down Girard Avenue, ringing their bells, and casting their moving lights and shadows on the walls around us as they moved.

One might, as my grandfather had wound his tired way up the narrow spiral staircase up from the little kitchen that was behind the store, he stopped to talk with us before continuing up to the third floor. (On that were not only my grandparents’ bedroom, but also the place’s one comfortable room, where one could watch TV, and where the old folks dealt with the days proceeds).

I cannot remember how the conversation began, or how it led to the story that — it seemed in retrospect – our grandfather wanted us to hear from him. (His speech was heavily inflected with an accent I assume came with having been grown up speaking both Yiddish and Russian.)

“I was a boy, like you, back in Russia [it was under the Czar, but in today’s Molodova], and I wanted so much to get an education. But that wasn’t possible where I was, and in my family.” (I think he indicated that his father stood in the way, but I may be painting that into the story because of what came later.)

“But a long way off, there was a school that I might go to. So I ran away to become a student there. But my father caught up with me, and when we got home, he beat me and beat me.”

At this point, he was sobbing, and there were tears coming down his face.

I do not believe that I’d ever seen a grown man cry before. That would have sufficed to make the memory stand out. But what really stands out is the pain and outrage and despair in his voice when he finished by declaring, “I just wanted to get educated!”

Outraged that his noble ambition to learn was punished with a beating.

Looking back now, I see other parts of my picture of my grandfather in the light of that story.

There was Zeida’s bookcase: a whole shelf of books by social thinkers on the Russian scene around the turn of the century—the utopians, the socialists, the anarchists. Names like Sorokin,  Bukharin. Kropotkin ,Tolstoy.

Although our Zeide did not much engage us in conversation, every once in a while he’d get going on some flight of intellectual imagination, talking about things like social forces, and consciousness, and the requirements for justice. One could hear his utopian aspirations in his theorizing. And one could see him grappling to employ well the ideas he’d gleaned from those social thinkers whose books lined his shelves.

But his pronouncements were as muddled as they were impassioned. He sounded like a man striving to put together an apparatus without knowing how the parts fit together, or to make a barrel that doesn’t leak because it’s well-enough fashioned to hold water.

Because of that muddledness, while he had my sympathy, I respected him less than I now feel is his due.

Yes, he was muddled. And that meant that he couldn’t meet the standards of my own father – his son — for good, clear thinking.

But now I’m seeing also that his youthful passion for knowledge and understanding survived the beating that dashed his ambitions. He never ceased striving – however imperfectly — to educate himself, to become a thinker, despite his having had to flee, at the age of 14, a country that wouldn’t educate him (and that persecuted Jews like him), and then live out his days becoming no great success doing what he could do – as a farmer, salesman, shopkeeper — to raise a family in a foreign land, America.

But it was more than that striving. I’ve come to recognize that my grandfather put into the family system something that I should not take for granted, because it is at the heart of what I’ve done with my life: a passion to understand the forces at work in the human world, and to use that understanding to help heal the world.

Understanding that helps move us toward utopia.

(I wouldn’t know how better to sum up what my own life’s work has been about.)

My grandfather, confused as he was, did have the notion that there were things going on in the world that are not visible like stones, but more like the way the wind is visible in how it moves things. He was indeed, in that way, part of that universe of thinkers who explain what happens in the human world.

That heritage reached me through my own father. But if my father recognized what he’d received from his father, I never heard it.

My father did not respect his own father, I don’t think, though he never said as much. And I can imagine a son might have good reasons for that: impotent rage isn’t what I’d want to see in my father, either.

It was part of the family lore that my grandmother had worked 14-hour days so that my father could go to college (at Temple, in Philadelphia). And he did indeed get the excellent education that had been denied his father. But I don’t have any reason to suspect that he recognized how much of his own intellectual richness as a social thinker was built upon what was right there in his confused father’s ramblings – confused, and lacking rigor — about abstractions regarding the workings of the human world.

My guess is that my father recoiled from the confusion, focused his own self-development on the need for the clarity and rigor. And he developed a critical mind as good as any I’ve encountered.

(As his son, making some assertion meant being prepared to explore, and being prepared to defend. His critical mind that was one hell of a teacher for me growing up. I liked being put through my paces, but trying to meet his standards could also be a strain.)

But in my father’s history, the quest to reach good sound conclusions once it a substantial bump in the road. My brother and I agree that something traumatic happened to our father at the end of the college years: he discovered that for all his clarity and rigor, he’d made a terrible error in judgment.

(What brought that traumatic recognition to him was when Stalin and Hitler signed their Non-Aggression treaty, and he saw Stalin for the monster he was, which he’d somehow not seen before.)

He was hardly the only one to make that mistake in the 1930s. But Ed and I agree, I think, that he could never trust himself again in some way that was of some importance to him. He would not again go public with a position that might be wrong.

Although he was bold in his career in  that he helped create a new frontier in economics, but he was overcautious in putting out his message to the world. He wrote his book nine times. And everything had to be completely nailed down. No bold assertions.

(To his credit, the work he did made an important contribution—and we’ve been told he might have won the Nobel Prize in Economics if he had not died before his 49th birthday, but lived into a ripe old age as did his friend and colleague Leo Hurwicz, who won the Nobel when he was 90, and then died at 91.)

But that great caution – and likely anxiety — was confined to his public face, his professional work. It was there that he seems to have felt he must be completely well defended in his positions.

But in private, in the family, I got to benefit from his breadth as a social thinker. That breadth and depth would be conveyed in our conversations. (Like those we’d have when we’d go driving around the farmland within reach.) During our “country drives,” I could ask him about French civilization, and how it different from the English; and about why something like Nazism could take hold in a country.

He was a thinker, and he thought about the same kinds of things his father did, but did it better, with a richer bank of knowledge and much more disciplined ways of thinking.

What I got from him was of a quality that he’d never have been able to get from his father. But it was with my grandfather that the whole enterprise began: the endeavor to find some understanding that might help lead to a better world than the dangerously imperfect one we have now.

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